Being in a Hurry Might Not Actually Work

A common question I’m asked in the first session is, “How many sessions do you think this will take?” And I get it. You want to know what you’re getting yourself into, because counseling does represent a significant investment of time, energy, and resources. The answer to that question is largely determined by your specific situation, but I did want to offer some general thoughts about the counseling process so this isn’t a total mystery.

Slower Than You Wanted

I hope I didn’t lose all of you with that heading because I know telling someone that anything is going to be slow usually means they’ve already moved on and will find someone who can do it faster. But the longer I’ve done this work, the more clear it’s become- change is generally a slow process. Why is this?

I recently moved back to Pennsylvania from Washington state and as we’ve been getting settled I’ve done some reflecting on the process. It took at least a year and a half just for us to process our life situation and to make the decision to move. Then there was the process of putting a move in motion- preparing a house to sell and then listing it, packing, closing up loose ends at work, saying goodbye. I think I went to Goodwill at least 73 times during this period. Then the actual move, which involved driving across the country (it is about a 40 hour drive), waiting for our stuff to arrive, and unpacking. All of it has felt really slow and tedious! Once I knew I was moving, I wanted to just get there, and once I was here I just wanted to get unpacked and settled. But it’s involved a lot of waiting and a lot of work and there’s been no fast forward button I could hit.

And it’s not just moving that is slow. As I’ve reflected further and talked about life with friends, it’s become clear that we’re all discovering that changing ourselves is an incredibly slow process as well! Whether it’s wanting to become more mature, get in shape, or change that aspect of our personality that always seems to get us snagged as we’re trying to navigate life and relationships, achieving this change is more of a grind than expected. Think about it- by the time you enter counseling you have probably been dealing with a set of issues for years and possibly decades and you finally reached the point that it was intolerable to you or the important people around you. These issues and aspects of ourselves are deep rooted and reinforced over time, and they will not be pulled up easily. Many of these aspects formed as a way to survive painful events and to protect us from a world that can be harsh in large and small ways every day. So, the first reason we find change to be slow is because we’re battling ourselves and our fundamental difficulty overturning our ways of thinking about and interacting with the world. What else contributes to this?

Relationships Are Slow

I’m really bumming you out with these headings, I know. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that counseling is fundamentally the formation of a specific kind of relationship, and all relationships are generally slow. It takes time to become comfortable with a person. You need time with them to see whether they are consistent and reliable. You need to see their reactions to various situations, especially with vulnerable information, to see whether they are trustworthy. You just need time to decide whether you like someone and want to be around them period! This is especially true in counseling where you are often disclosing the most personal and emotionally laden things in your life. I’m always blown away when a client says something like, “You are the only person I’ve ever talked about this with.” That is a real gift and honor when this happens, and I don’t expect to be granted that kind of access on day 1 or even day 65. It needs to be earned, and this takes time.

When they do research about what makes therapy effective, it’s not the things you would initially guess. It’s not the therapist’s ability to have all the answers or to make incredible interpretations. That doesn’t even make the list. This makes sense- if therapy was fast or similar to getting your car fixed, it would just be about the therapist diagnosing you, inputting some information, and you could leave a finished product. But humans are much more complex than this. So what are the main factors? Things like therapist care and compassion, as well as the ability to balance nurture and challenge in the context of the relationship. I’ll never forget what Irv Yalom, a renowed Psychiatrist, said about his years of psychoanalysis- he wrote that the only moment he remembered and that had an impact on him was when he shared a painful story and his therapist leaned forward with compassion. It was the only time she left her neutral stance and stopped making interpretations, and it was the only moment that mattered. Simone Weil writes,

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Life is Just Slow

Ok last heading about this, I promise. On our drive from WA to PA, we stopped in Minnesota to visit some friends who are organic farmers. As we asked questions about the farm and learned about the work, I was struck again by how much effort the whole process takes and how slow it is. The field has to be tilled and prepared, the seeds planted, and then they grow secretly and silently for months underground, before emerging and growing slowly above ground. All of this is dependent on weather and happens in season. The Bible is filled with agricultural language and metaphor about sowing and reaping, and about harvest. And it’s always understood that this is going to be a process that involves hard work, waiting, and dealing with uncertainty. It is a process that happens in season, meaning that in our own lives we will have periods of fruitfulness and periods where it seems like nothing much is happening at all. This is the nature of who we are, how relationships work, and of life itself. So why would therapy be any different? I hope this is actually encouraging for you, because it means you’re not expected to be “fixed” after a month of therapy. You can be gracious with yourself as you try to unravel how you got here and can have reasonable expectations for where you will finally arrive. Change is very possible and is deeply rewarding, but it comes in its due season, not with the click of a button. I hope to move slowly with you sometime soon. Call or email today to schedule an appointment.

How Do We Change?

I've been asking this question for what feels like my whole life, and I have formalized the pursuit of this question by studying Psychology and choosing counseling as a profession.  The question is both personal and relational.  I hardly expect to deal with a subject that has spilled much ink in one blog entry, but I offer what I hope will be a starting point on your journey to answer this question.

Beliefs about God
I build my foundation upon belief in God and the Bible.  If you aren't with me on this point, hang around and see if what follows makes any sense.  The essential thing to understand about God and change is seen in the reality of Jesus and the cross.  God seeks us out and saves us while we are completely apart from and disinterested in Him.  Once we are led to belief, it is God through the Holy Spirit who continues to move in us and help us grow despite our constant tendency to go our own way and live for ourselves.  We fundamentally resist change and are incapable of doing anything about it unless God acts, both before and after initial belief.

This last point is where a lot of the confusion about change begins. My thoughts on this topic are largely influenced by the writing of John and Paula Sandford, who have been blowing my mind recently with their material. 

When we trust in Christ, we are saved and our sins are no longer counted against us.  We belong to Christ.  This is the best news imaginable.  But unfortunately, the process of change and growth is just beginning.  Many are shocked to find that all of their old hangups and behaviors are still present after becoming a believer.  Growth is not complete and is still very difficult.

My training was largely influenced by cognitive behavioral therapy and experiential, client centered approaches.  What these essentially teach is that people can change if their thought patterns are adjusted and they have the right kinds of reinforcement following new behavior.  They also teach that people are inherently good, know what they need to grow, and are capable of making the right choices if they are validated and helped to unlock their potential.
This thinking isn't dominated by "secular" misguided psychology.  A common approach in the church is to assume that through the right kind of teaching and personal discipline, maybe praying harder, change will be possible.  There is danger here of falling into one of two heresies that have plagued the church.  Gnosticism: believing that we are made whole by right knowledge or thinking, and Pelagianism: believing that we can heal ourselves by our own efforts.  The two together say if we understand our formation we can heal ourselves.

So What Then?
I bought into these ideas.  They are very subtle, and they appeal to our belief in our independence and abilities.  I was baffled when in a session, a client would appear to have a breakthrough of understanding, yet return the next week with no changed behavior.  Insight is not enough.  Trying harder is not enough.  Think back to salvation- God accomplishes it.  It is the same with our growth and continual transformation.  God accomplishes it the same way He did in Christ, with one difference.  We must now partner with God in this process by continually dying and taking our old nature to the cross.  When you have an insight about your behavior or wrong pattern of thinking, don't stop there.  Confess it, repent, take it to the cross and kill it.  When I think about what my partnership with God in this process looks like, I see my main task as being disciplined to remember each and every day how dependent I am on God to maintain any changes He initiates.  So it's less about what I'm able to will myself to do, and more about remembering that I can't will myself to do anything.  I must simply get myself in God's presence on a daily basis.  This is my chief task.  He will do the rest.

We are not looking to build self esteem or teach new skills upon a solid personality structure.  We are looking for root systems that are diseased and need to be put to death.
John and Paula Sandford write, "We are always dealing not so much with what was done to us as our sinful responses.  Reactions of resentment and judgment, however hidden and forgotten in the heart, must find their way to the cross...habitual patterns of response must be transformed by repentance, death, and rebirth.  Otherwise, no permanent or even valuable change of personality will result."

We are talking about assisting the process of discovery so that the Holy Spirit can write understanding in the heart.  For that difficulty Paul prayed that "the eyes of the heart may be enlightened" (Eph 1:18).

If you are stuck somewhere, unhappy with your spouse, your children, your parents, your habits, with the fruit of your life, basically, if you are a member of the human race, this is the starting point for you.  Get help from others and from the Spirit to find the roots in your life that must continue to be put to death.  It's the only way.